Two clean sheets in a row – at Wolfsburg (who hadn’t failed to score in 27 matches before Thursday) and at Liverpool, desperate for the points to revive their Champions’ League hopes. Not a bad week’s work.
Particularly impressive again was a man for whom we’ll soon run out of superlatives. Hard-working utility players aren’t often footballing idols and I haven’t seen a single pundit praise the performances of Chris Baird this season. That’s a shame. You’d forgive the boy for a bit of trepidation when asked to fill in at right back in the continuing absence of John Pantsil given how grim the start to his Fulham career was in that position. Baird was something of a hot property in the summer of 2007, with several Premier League clubs chasing his signature. He turned down Sunderland and chose to team up with his former national manager, Lawrie Sanchez, but his confidence understandably wilted after being asked to shackle some speedy wingers and coming up some way short.
That wasn’t his fault. Not blessed with an extraordinary amount of pace and without quick centre backs to bail Baird out, Sanchez’s insistence on pushing high up the pitch seemed destined to failure. There were some solid displays in there. Baird was excellent in the goalless draw at Stamford Bridge that followed Jose Mourinho’s shock departure but, with Roy Hodgson bringing in new full-backs, the man who’s most famous contribution to the Great Escape was clouting Jimmy Bullard on the nose had to prove himself all over again.
There were more than a few worries when Brede Hangeland’s name wasn’t on the teamsheet at Tottenham on Boxing Day last season but Baird, despite a few groans from Fulham fans who clearly couldn’t have seen some of hapless predecessors at centre back during the truly dark days, delivered a flawless display at the heart of the Fulham defence.
This season he answered the call when Hodgson seemed to have run out of central midfielders. Such was his impact alongside Jonathan Greening that one would be justified in counting him a little unfortunate to lose his place once Dickson Etuhu returned from the African Cup of Nations. Given more of an opportunity to influence the play from the middle of the park, Baird displayed his intelligence with plenty of crucial interceptions and more than one excellent forward pass (think of the one that released Zamora to score at Burnley for example).
Baird’s worth to the side is immense. Hodgson might have helped him on the training ground and boosted his confidence but he’s clearly revelling in his football right now. He’ll cover plenty of ground, understands his role, can frequently be found urging his team-mates on and he won’t ever shirk a battle. Such was evident in that confident performance in Wolfsburg, where he was the subject of my favourite bit of commentary from Clive Tyldesley (not that’s there too much competition). Anticipating a break from the former Newcastle forward Obafemi Martins, Tyldesley gasped excitedly: ‘Martin’s is in space’. In came Baird from out of the picture to take the ball away and Tyldesley piped up sheepishly: ‘But he hasn’t got the ball …’
At Anfield yesterday, a jaded Fulham knew they were going to under the cosh from the first whistle, such was Liverpool’s thirst for the three points. Baird had a difficult job suppressing the mercurial Ryan Babel, dangerous precisely because he can cut in from the left onto his right foot. Not only did Baird nullify that threat, he was also outstanding in the air – appearing at the back post countless times to head the ball clear.
That chalkboard doesn’t seem all that impressively visually but I’m sure his contribution was greatly appreciated by the rest of Fulham’s defence. Back at the start of that awful Sanchez season, it seemed like only Rich (see here for not-too-flashy example) and a few others who would defend Baird’s worth – now, most Fulham fans recognise he won’t let anyone down.